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Language from the First World War

Glyn Harper
Professor of War Studies at Massey University

As we're all confined to quarters, spare a thought for those who spent months and years in the squalid environs of the First World War. Just as words like 'lockdown' and 'bubble' have come to define our COVID-19 lives, war spawned a new, often times humorous, language to describe the miserable, dangerous and peculiar world that soldiers found themselves in.

\u0027The Digger\u0027s Dictionary\u0027 (1919). From the Troopship magazine - \u0027The parting of the ways : a souvenir record of the triumphs, tribulations and maritime musings of returning draft no. 217\u0027. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

'The Digger's Dictionary' (1919). From the Troopship magazine - 'The parting of the ways : a souvenir record of the triumphs, tribulations and maritime musings of returning draft no. 217'. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

D526.2 PAR.No known copyright restrictions.

Have you had a day where you were feeling lousy or washed out; maybe after a night of binge eating Easter chocolate? And as you work from home, and are feeling fed up, did you hope there would not be too much bumf to deal with? Were you hoping for a cushy day, one in which you would not draw the crabs. If you did, it is a legacy from the First World War. All of the highlighted words have entered the English language as a result of the soldiers’ experience in the trenches of the Great War.

Lousy referred to being infected with lice, a soldiers’ constant companion during the war. A wash out originally referred to an officer who had failed to pass his commissioning course and was posted back to his unit. It soon came to signify failure in general. Binge, originally a Lancashire term, described an overindulgence of alcohol.

Fed up emerged as a widespread feeling of discontent. A digger dictionary records its meaning simply as ‘disgusted and weary’. Bumf was a term applied to the paperwork that originated from higher headquarters. There was a lot of it and bumf was shortened from bum fodder - slang for toilet paper.

Cushy is one of the words originating from Britain’s Indian Army. In Hindu, Kushi means pleasure but the word has morphed to its broader meaning of being undemanding and easy. In digger speak, crabs were artillery shells and to ‘draw the crabs’ was to attract enemy artillery fire. It was the last thing a soldier wanted to do.

Historians have tended to ignore the importance of language to soldiers on active service. It was part of what defined them as a close knit primary group. Being able to ‘sling the bat’ (speak the language) was an essential part of a soldier’s life. As the French writer Henri Barbusse noted, the language of the French Army in the First World War, a mixture of workplace and barrack slang, patois and newly coined words ‘binds us like a sauce, to the compact mass of men … who have emptied France to concentrate in the North-East’.

Many words and terms coined by the soldiers soon spread widely. Some, like the words in the opening paragraph, remain in common use today. A small sample includes:

Air pocket

a flying term indicating thin air

Back chat

to answer back, usually with impertinence

Bunk

to abscond

Ding bat

a simpleton or halfwit. During the war it also referred to officers’ batmen (servant)

Doolally madness

from the hospital at Deolali, near Bombay

Go to the pack

deteriorate

Gutzer

a disappointment or misfortune usually, expressed as ‘to come a gutzer’. A ‘gutzer straight or flush’ in a digger speak was a poker straight or flush with one crucial card missing.

Hard word

an outrageous demand

In the gun

under disfavour

Pong smell

more usually stink

Sit on the tail staying close

Originally a flying term indicating the intent to fly slightly above and behind an enemy aeroplane.

Swipe to steal

originally a Canadian term

Wind up

or being frightened

There are many more....

In his highly acclaimed book The Great War and Modern Memory, published in 1975, Paul Fussell reminded readers that ‘the diction of war resides everywhere just below the surface of modern experience’. Fussell noted that words such as breakthrough, bombard, barrage, crummy, sector and trench are in frequent use without any awareness by the people speaking them that these terms originated from the First World War.

Many words used by our First World War soldiers were eventually discarded or forgotten. It was a natural process but it is also regrettable as much colour, meaning and sheer creativity was lost. Often words and terms revealed our soldiers’ humour too. This can be seen in the samples below:

Concrete macaroon

the standard army biscuit baked so hard that it could break teeth when eaten

Duck’s breakfast

a drink of water and a wash. That is, no breakfast at all. The diggers’ dictionary records that this was a ‘frequent repast in the front line’.

FFF

feeling completely miserable. One meaning was ‘forlorn, famished and far from home’. There are some more colourful versions of its meaning.

Gay

whisky, a shortened form of gay and frisky - rhyming slang for whisky

Middlesex officer

a pompous, foppish officer - therefore a member of the Middle Sex

The First World War is renowned for the poetry it produced from the trenches. The enduring linguistic legacy it produced, much of it originating from the ordinary soldier, is not so well-known. The distinguished Australian historian Professor Sir Ernest Scott wrote in 1936 that the impacts of the First World War would still be evident in one hundred years. Professor Scott was right. The effect of the First World War on how we speak today is just one of its enduring legacies.


Dr Glyn Harper is Professor of War Studies at Massey University. In 2018 he was made a Fellow of Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Cite this article

Harper, Glyn. Language from the First World War. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 7 April 2020. Updated: 21 April 2020.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/features/Anzac-Day-2020/Language-from-the-First-World-War